What I Learned About Competition From My Boyfriend's Ex

by Shawna Bethell
Originally Published: 
Two girls arm wrestling representing competition from a boyfriend's Ex

I’d been watching reruns of NCIS, an easy enough way to spend an hour, when Abby told Gibbs, “Good women know it’s OK to share the throne.”

I stopped and did a double take. Abby was implying women could share in their successes. Hmmm. I started thinking that NCIS was indeed better than an easy way to spend an hour. Because we don’t get a lot of that kind of talk in pop culture. We get a lot of snark and competition, catfights and hurtful behavior. I liked the representation of strong, smart, funny women actually supporting one another, and it took me back several years to a conversation I had with the ex-girlfriend of the guy I was dating at the time.

Stacey was a unique beauty with long dark hair and enormous, almond-shaped blue eyes. She was also a mathematician and art collector. I worked at a shelter for battered women and had a fairly strong set of credentials in my own pocket. We were two great women who had been thrown into a challenging and often uncomfortable circumstance but were handling it fairly well overall because we both had a solid respect for women in general.

Stacey was explaining that one of her students had won a fellowship in Italy and would be living and studying abroad for a year. Without thinking I exclaimed that I was envious. Stacey immediately raised both her arms, brandishing her wineglass like a torch, and responded, “No! We should celebrate her success. When one of us succeeds, we all do.”

I’d never heard feminism presented so obviously before. And though I had meant the young student no ill will in any way, I certainly understood what the passionate woman across from me was saying: that with each step forward any of us makes, we all follow in that path, regardless of the area of study or occasion of success. When any of us undercuts or damages another woman, we all suffer. We break the supportive web of unity.

So often we are raised to compete—for the partner, the job, the thinnest waist, the best parenting skills, the best “right way to live,”—that we criticize one another for our very choices to marry, be single, be a mom, or be childless. And amidst all that bickering, we lose sight of the fact that we’re all just trying to be happy with the lives we have made. We fail to recognize that rarely are any of those life choices perfect, and that no matter how much conviction we had when we made them, every choice can also lead to moments of strife and frustration. Think of how much easier it might be if we felt the encouragement of the women who surrounded us instead of their judgment.

My fourth great-niece was born this afternoon, and for her sake, as well as the sakes of all girls walking in this world, I hope that we as a society of women can create a more supportive and nurturing culture than what we have now. I hope we can turn off those programs that portray hateful behaviors among women and girls and create something better for them to be part of. And I hope as aunties and mothers and sisters and friends we can conduct ourselves in a manner that they deserve to experience, and in turn, emulate. Because, then, we all really do succeed.

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